Family memories bubble to the surface in Maine

Special to the Los Angeles Times

Reporting from Boothbay Harbor, Maine

Early morning in a kayak on Linekin Bay. My paddle goes plash-plash. A gull gives me the hairy eyeball to warn me away from its nest. Across the water on the peninsula that ends at Ocean Point, a woman sits like a statue on a dock. I round Cabbage Island in pure, clear sunshine, no wind. The vessel rocks gently.

That's summertime on the coast of Maine the way I remember it from a childhood vacation many years ago. But that's not the way I found it when I arrived for a long weekend at Linekin Bay Resort late last summer.

A friend had told me about the resort on a rocky point near the tip of the ragged Boothbay peninsula. It was founded as a girls' summer camp in 1919, and it is a collection of mismatched lodges and cottages beloved by families, with a cracked saltwater swimming pool on the waterfront, two docks, a tennis court and shuffleboard court.

In the high season, the resort operates on the old American Plan, which includes accommodations, three meals a day, use of all recreational facilities, a children's program and sailing lessons, for $110 to $170 a person. When the kids are in school at the beginning and end of the season, the place quiets down and the bed-and-breakfast rate kicks in, with doubles for $129.

I had arrived at the tail end of the American Plan season with a nor'easter in the form of about two dozen sun-browned children whooping around the dining hall, cutting paths across the lawn, cannonballing into the pool and practicing for an after-dinner talent show on a keyboard and drum kit. Their parents were chattering in the lodge, searching for lost sneakers in outlying cabins and yelling for their children to come to dinner.

I was glad I was here for that. It was a season finale special of homemade haddock chowder and steamed lobster, served family-style on long communal tables by college-aged staff members from Eastern Europe to the accompaniment of crying babies and crashing china. Afterward, the window-lined dining room looked as though it could qualify for federal disaster relief funds.

I caught a bit of the talent show — the kid on the keyboard was quite good — then made my way to Mahaiwe Lodge, which had a veranda overlooking the water, a living room decorated à la Salvation Army and bookshelves filled with 20 summers' worth of abandoned bodice rippers and mysteries.

My tiny bedroom had two narrow single beds, a rusty metal shower stall in the private bath and access to a set of plastic lawn chairs on the porch.

I wasn't exactly disappointed. The friend who'd told me about the resort had warned me that it was rustic. I just hadn't anticipated how rustic. By the time I turned out the light, I'd decided I was too old for summer camp and planned to check out the next morning.

But there was something about the way dawn arrived through the east-facing windows. My bed was warm, and from where I lay, my little wood-lined cubicle looked as snug as a ship's cabin. The only sound was the easy creaking of the dock.

When I got up, I found coffee waiting for early risers in the dining hall and a life vest and paddle in the boat shed. I had to tug a kayak over the seaweed-coated rock slabs at the waterfront to launch it, but after that I slipped smoothly into Linekin Bay and paddled around Cabbage Island. Everything looked clean and sparkling; the sky was It's-A-Boy! baby blue, the water as cold and still as a dry martini straight up. On the way back I passed a red buoy and adjusted my course, recalling the old navigational rule "Red Right Returning" from sailing lessons in my distant past.

What a difference a day makes, especially at the end of August on Linekin Bay. The season was over at the resort. Dads were packing up the family wagons; staff members had begun taking sailboats out of the water; a little girl tugged me into the group picture several families were posing for on the dock. When I went to breakfast the dining hall was deserted, except for a friendly retired couple who advised me to try the blueberry blintzes and spend the morning exploring in town.

As it turns out, Boothbay Harbor is a good, old-fashioned tourist trap on one of the prettiest waterfronts in Maine, a center for fishing and shipbuilding as early as the 17th century. In the 19th century vacationers discovered it, bringing hotels, a long footbridge that traverses the inlet on the east side of town, a bowling alley, a handsome old opera house, restaurants and the kinds of shops — such as the Greater Boothbay Fudge Factory — that used to rivet me as a girl.

I tasted dill-pickle and key lime pie-flavored popcorn at the Coastal Maine Popcorn Co. and found a dog-eared paperback copy of "The Group," by Mary McCarthy, for 50 cents at the Boothbay Memorial Library's used bookstore. When I saw a sign at the Ebb Tide coffee shop that said "Lobster rolls — over 5 million served," I stopped in. No. 5,000,001 was on the puny side for $9.75, but it had big, meaty lobster chunks.

In the afternoon I visited Wiscasset, a classic New England village near the head of the Boothbay peninsula that is devoted to seafaring. Its shady streets are lined by fine old captains' houses with widow's walks commanding views of the nearby Sheepscot River. One of them, Castle Tucker, is open to visitors, so I took the tour, thinking of my mother, who taught social studies to seventh-graders and made my family stop at every historic site we passed on family vacations. I admired especially the graceful, flying staircase and bric-a-brac collected during ocean voyages to the Fiji Islands, Japan and China.

Back at Linekin Bay, the staff was preparing for an end-of-the-season party. I took "The Group" to the porch and read until I lost consciousness. When I blinked my eyes open, the book was on the floor and the sun was setting, prime time for a walk at Ocean Point.

To reach it, I drove around the head of Linekin Bay, through the hamlet of East Boothbay, sleepier and less commercial than Boothbay Harbor, then followed Route 96, a country road lined by pine trees and gracious, old summer houses, each with its own dock, vegetable patch and rose garden. When the road emerged from the woods, I parked and walked around the point, paved by massive rock ledges with perches for gazing toward about half a dozen spruce-clad islets in the Gulf of Maine.

When I was 12, my family took a weeklong trip among the islands off the coast on the schooner Stephen Taber out of Rockland. As I recall, I was the only kid on the cruise, so the crew kept me occupied by teaching me to tie knots and letting me help raise the sails. I almost cut off my index finger whittling and jumped from the deck shrieking into the ice water of the gulf.

How could I ever have forgotten all that? Why had it taken me so many years to get back to Maine?

Come to think of it, I tasted my first lobster on that trip — a memory that drew me to Lobsterman's Wharf on the cove at East Boothbay for dinner. In an effort to diversify, I ordered lump crab cakes, which were delicious, but I couldn't stop staring at a couple nearby, cracking into a pair of bright pink steamed lobsters. When we got to talking, I learned they were New Yorkers. With a perfectly shelled claw poised over a bowl of melted butter, the woman said, "Yeah, we come here every summer to eat lobster until we break out in a rash."

Back at the resort, all was quiet, though I kept hearing echoes of children's voices as I sat on the dark porch. It occurred to me that someday one of the grown-up kids would look at an old family photo, see my face and wonder who I was. The picture would be captioned: Summer vacation, 2010, Linekin Bay.

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